The Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation has awarded the Department of Stem Cell & Leukemia Research a $700,000 grant for critical start-up funding for investigations of the role of cancer stem cells in the development and progression of leukemia and other cancers.
The grant also supports development of therapies that target and destroy these cancer-causing cells. Cancer stem cells constitute a small portion of tumors but may play a key role in the proliferation of cancer cells.
Beginning with studies of leukemia in the 1980s, a growing body of evidence has indicated that a small subpopulation of cancer cells may give rise to cancer. These so-called “cancer stem cells” share two characteristics with normal stem cells: They are self-renewing and can divide infinitely to produce copies of themselves, and they can differentiate into other cell types found in bodily organs or, in the case of cancer, tumor cells.
Cancer stem cells have been identified in other blood cancers and in breast, brain and lung cancers, among others. And while current cancer therapies kill the majority of mature cancer cells within a tumor, studies have shown that malignant stem cells can persist even when the patient appears in complete remission.
“What is clear from previous research is that several — if not all — leukemias arise from small subpopulations of leukemia stem cells,” said Ravi Bhatia, M.D., director of the Department of Stem Cell & Leukemia Research, who will lead the program. “Before cures can be developed, a number of questions must be answered regarding the nature of leukemia stem cells and their resistance to elimination by conventional treatments. This grant will provide us with the equipment and talent to fully investigate these questions and ultimately design treatments that will uniquely target cancer stem cells.”
Investigators in the department will study the differences in signaling and gene regulation between normal and malignant stem cells and use the abnormal activity of the leukemia stem cells as targets for therapy. A major area of focus will include cell self-renewal, survival and growth regulation in normal versus malignant stem cells.
“Cancer stem cells are an increasingly vital part of oncology research,” said Norris Foundation Executive Director Ronald R. Barnes. “The Norris Foundation is proud to support City of Hope’s efforts in cancer stem cell research, which has the potential to change current beliefs about the spread of cancers and effective treatment approaches.”
Recruitment of young investigators to join Bhatia is under way. Takahiro Maeda, M.D., Ph.D., joined City of Hope in 2007, while Ya-Huei Kuo, Ph.D., joined the department earlier this month. Both are assistant professors, and one more assistant professor position will be added.
The Department of Stem Cell & Leukemia Research is housed within City of Hope’s Division of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation, under the overall direction of Stephen J. Forman, M.D., the Francis and Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation.